Russia’s State Duma elections will fuel authoritarianism, experts say

Russia's State Duma elections will fuel authoritarianism, experts say

A bus walks past a United Russia campaign poster ahead of the 8th convocation Russian State Duma elections on September 17-19.

Vladimir Smirnov | TASS | Getty Images

Russia will hold elections for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, from Friday and experts expect the vote to strengthen President Vladimir Putin’s power base in the Kremlin.

The ruling United Russia party is widely expected to win a “convincing victory” in the vote to be held Sept. 17-19, with one analyst noting that the election “initiates more authoritarianism” as a result.

“The Kremlin aims to maintain a constitutional majority, to ensure the legitimacy of the vote and to avoid mass protests after the elections. Major changes in the political direction of the cabinet or the government are unlikely to occur after the vote, ”said Andreas Tursa, central adviser and Teneo Intelligence adviser for Eastern Europe in a memo before the vote.

About 108 million voters in Russia are eligible to elect 450 members of the State Duma for a five-year term. Voting this year is taking place over a three-day period due to the Covid-19 pandemic. United Russia has been the country’s dominant party for decades and enthusiastically backs Putin, despite running as an independent candidate since 2018.

Adeline Van Houtte, Europe analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said on Wednesday the vote would be an important test for United Russia, which has been hit by a weak labor market in recent years and insufficient financial support for businesses and households . weakened its popularity.

“United Russia now votes around 30%, which is significantly lower than in 2016. Despite its poor ratings, it maintains a comfortable lead over its main competitors. We expect United Russia and other Kremlin pro-Allies to maintain a large majority in the Duma.

action against opponents

Analysts expect electoral standards to be skewed when it comes to press freedom and efforts to suppress and neutralize political opposition in Russia – in particular, jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his supporters. .

Van Houtte said a major crackdown on real and perceived opponents was intensifying before the parliamentary elections “and should continue after”.

Although Navalny was jailed earlier this year, Russian authorities continue to dismantle the opposition movement and the activist’s base of support.

In June, three political associations affiliated with Navalny were banned and labeled “extremists”, which means that any member of the organization or sympathizer of Navalny faces prison terms. and may be prohibited from running for public office.

“Given the limited presence of international observers and the widespread crackdown on the opposition, independent media and civic organizations over the past year, the next elections will be the least transparent and competitive in the last few years. 20 years in power of President Vladimir Putin, ”Tursa said. . , adding that United Russia was still on the verge of securing an absolute majority of seats and could retain a constitutional majority in the lower house despite a recent decline in popularity.

symbolic protest

Analysts in Russia say the election looks like a democratic vote, but in reality it is tightly controlled by the state and the other parties on the ballot are symbolic opposition parties endorsed by the Kremlin.

The “so-called systemic opposition parties” are currently represented in the State Duma, Tursa said, citing the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and a Just For Truth Russia, as well as a new party called the New People. . , which targets frustrated urban voters. He said these parties do not represent the “real opposition”.

“As a result, the Duma will continue to strongly support the Kremlin,” Tursa said.

For the Kremlin, Tursa said there were three goals. Primarily, “to reaffirm United Russia’s unchallenged control over the State Duma while maintaining a constitutional majority, which has practical and symbolic significance ahead of the 2024 presidential election.”

Second, the Kremlin seeks to maintain legitimacy among the political elite and the electorate at large by ensuring “a good vote, a credible vote result, and limited reporting of any electoral irregularities.”

And third, he wants to avoid widespread protests such as those seen after the 2011 parliamentary elections or in neighboring Belarus last year, Tursa said.

What about the economy?

Tersa said the political direction of the cabinet or the government is unlikely to undergo any major changes, as the ruling party’s platform continues to address key policy areas such as the welfare of families, infrastructure development in the regions. of Russia and safeguarding the interests of the country. abroad. East. .

Emerging markets economist Liam Peach of Capital Economics agrees that United Russia will retain its majority, but noted that “the political environment is fragile” and that the government may soon intervene more in the economy.

“Public support for a united Russia has fallen sharply over the past five years and President Putin’s approval rating is near an all-time high,” he said in a note on Wednesday. The stagnation of real incomes since 2013 has something to do with it. It might be possible.

“A major implication of this tension is that the government has taken an increasingly interventionist approach to the economy in an effort to support families. On the one hand, social protection, which has become a major priority for the government. Cash payments to children, retirees and military personnel were announced ahead of the September elections. “

Peach said her team believes the focus on social support will become permanent in Russia.

“This move towards higher social spending has its roots before the pandemic and was presented along with President Putin’s plans to amend the constitution. With the depths of the crisis passing through and a rebound in oil prices that inflated public finances, it seems that the government has started to reorganize these regimes and put living standards issues at the top of its agenda.

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